The Peninsula Newspaper Qatar Monday, 31 October 2011 01:36
LAHORE: Pakistani cricket hero turned politician Imran Khan told a huge rally yesterday that his party would helpUStroops pull out fromAfghanistanand bring militancy in the country to an end.
Addressing a crowd of tens of thousands in the eastern city ofLahorehe said his Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party would like to have friendly — but not slavish — relations with theUS.
“My message toAmericais that we will have friendship with you but we will not accept any slavery,” he told the crowd.
“We will help you in a respectable withdrawal of your troops fromAfghanistan, but we will not launch a military operation inPakistanfor you.”
Witnesses said the rally, one of the largest in the city, was attended by some 150,000 people while organisers put the number at over half a million.
People came in packed buses, trucks, cars and tractors fromLahoreand other cities including those in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province borderingAfghanistan. Roads were blocked for hours due to heavy crowds.
“Who will savePakistan? Imran Khan, Imran Khan,” the crowd chanted as Khan arrived at the sprawling Minar-e-Pakistan ground ringed by security forces.
Vowing to end terrorism in the country, Khan said he held a meeting with tribal elders three days ago. “They all said militancy will end ifPakistanarmy leaves the tribal areas and US troops quitAfghanistan,” he said.
He said the rugged tribal terrain near the Afghan border is home to one million armed tribesmen.
“They are like our backbone butUSdrone strikes are forcing them to flee toAfghanistanand they are becoming Taliban in revenge,” he said, adding that his party will work for reconciliation and bring terrorism to an end.
The Pakistani military is itself battling a Taliban insurgency in the northwest, and more than 4,700 people have been killed in attacks across the country since government troops stormed a radical mosque inIslamabadin 2007.
Vowing to end corruption, poverty and illiteracy, and to depoliticise the police, Khan said his party would provide justice at village level.
He warned that he would launch a civil disobedience campaign if the country’s rulers did not declare their assets over the next few months.
“We will launch a civil disobedience movement and our youth will shut down cities across the country if you don’t declare your assets,” he said, claiming that President Asif Ali Zardari had secret accounts in foreign banks.
The rally, seen as a show of strength, comes two days after the main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shahbaz, attracted some 30,000 people at an anti-Zardari protest also in the key political battleground ofLahore.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) demanded early elections in its political heartland — it controls thePunjabprovincial government despite being in opposition at national level.
Party faithful denounced corruption and widespread power cuts, calling on the 56-year-old president, dubbed “Mr Ten Percent” over graft allegations, to step down before the government’s five-year mandate expires in 2013.
Political analyst Shafqat Mahmood said the scale of yesterday’s rally showed Khan had carved out support.
“People including youth, and intelligentsia responded to his call. This shows people want a change,” he said. “People see a new option in him. How much impact it will have on the next elections is yet to be seen.”
Pakistan Peoples Party Punjab General Secretary Sami Ullah Khan said PTI’s rally shows that it can be a threat to the PML-N.
He said that the vote bank of Pakistan Peoples Party was ideologically committed and the PTI rally showed the defeat of the PML-N inLahore.
He said that future would decide how Imran Khan would penetrate in the politics but he had succeeded in mobilizing the citizens ofLahore.
Despite the strong show of support, it’s still unclear how much Khan can shake up the political scene in the next national elections in 2013. His support is largely confined to urban areas ofPunjab,Pakistan’s largest province, whereLahoreis the capital.